Liberty is a word which, according as it is used, comprehends the most good and the most evil of any in the world.
Oliver Ellsworth played an instrumental role in the shaping of the early Republic. Not only did he ratify the constitution but he also served as Chief Justice of the United States from 1796 to 1800. Ellsworth, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention from Connecticut, is credited with dropping the term "national" for the arm of the central government and replacing it with "federal."
At the convention, Ellsworth played a major role in passing the Great Compromise, which allowed U.S. Senators to be elected by state legislatures. In 1913, the Constitution was amended, allowing for direct election by the people.
He was a supporter of a system of government that maintained the principle of local rule and understood central government as the body that would strengthen the rights of property and the harmony of the republic. So firm was his commitment to local control that he returned to the service of state and local government after his federal service.
Ellsworth was born in Windsor, Connecticut, in 1745. He attended Yale and transferred to Princeton, where after studying theology for a time in preparation for the ministry, turned in the direction of law and was admitted to the bar in 1771. Ellsworth also farmed to supplement his law income, which was modest early in his career.
He was a supporter of the American Revolution, actively serving in the Connecticut government and in 1777 he was appointed to represent Connecticut in the Continental Congress. He oversaw important war committees and fervently worked to cobble together support for General George Washington during a time that many described as "the darkest hour of the revolution." In a tribute to Ellsworth delivered to the 1902 graduating law class at Harvard, Henry Cabot Lodge declared, "It was hard and thankless work not shining brilliantly before the eyes of men, but all the more to be honored because done in obscurity, in the midst of distrust and contempt, and without hope of either present applause or of future reward."
Michael Toth, author of Founding Federalist: The Life of Oliver Ellsworth said of the New Englander,
For the entirety of his life, Ellsworth was a regular churchgoer who prayed daily and invoked his faith with his children. 'This life is but an embryo of our existence,' he wrote his daughter Abigail in December 1791, 'and derives its consequences only from its connection with future scenes.'
He believed strongly that religious moral formation and character was instrumental to the health of a nation. After the death of his young son Oliver Jr., Ellsworth penned a beautiful letter to his wife saying, "This world has now fewer charms in my eyes than it once did & I have no doubt but you can say the same. Happy for us, if it keeps a better world more constantly in view, and is a means of bringing us to those joys and rest into which I fully believe our dear departed little son is already entered."
Ellsworth was instrumental in helping to shape an America with an independent judiciary and a system of federalism. John Adams later called Ellsworth "the firmest pillar" of the federal government during its earliest years. If Ellsworth is largely forgotten today, he should be remembered again as somebody who returned to serve locally, though he once was called to the highest level of government.
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